Sep. 14-Maine is changing its approach to juvenile justice, a trend that replaces punishment in a youth prison with community-based treatment programs.
It's a good goal, but there is evidence that the change is not happing fast enough.
Last week, Disability Rights Maine notified the state Department of Corrections that staff at the Long Creek Youth Development Center are using "prone restraints," in which youth are forced to lie face down, often while handcuffed, sometimes with pressure applied to their back or legs.
These are restraint techniques that were identified as problematic in 2017 in an assessment by the national Center for Children's Law and Policy, a report that has been used by lawmakers and the department to design a juvenile justice system in which Long Creek would be obsolete.
But four years since the report was released, it's troubling to hear reports that these specific techniques may still be in use.
More than a year ago, the world was horrified to see a handcuffed George Floyd suffocate to death on a Minneapolis street corner, held in a facedown restraint while then-police Officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on the back of Floyd's neck. Chauvin was convicted of murder this year and has been sentenced to 22 years in prison, making clear that his treatment of Floyd was not acceptable police work.
How could a similar restraint technique still be used in Maine, especially by juvenile corrections officers?
Juvenile justice is supposed to have a goal that is different from the goal of the adult system. Young people are not considered legally competent, and the focus of youth programs is supposed to be rehabilitation. States across the country are moving away from youth prisons toward therapeutic settings, and that is the direction that Maine is headed.
For years, activists have been calling for Long Creek to be permanently shut down. A bill that would have set a deadline for its closure in 2023 passed the House and Senate this year but was vetoed by Gov. Mills.
The administration, however, endorsed a different approach that could have the same result.
Money from Long Creek's budget has been diverted to create transitional homes for young people and to start community-based programs.
The Legislature has tasked the department with creating small "secure, therapeutic residences," for the small number of youth who are too dangerous to live in a community.
And judges now may no longer send young people to Long Creek only because they have no other options.
As new programs become available, there will be even less excuse to maintain a facility that was built to house 168 young people but, last week, held only 38.
Until Long Creek is completely phased out, the state has to make sure that it is held to the highest standards and the most advanced understanding of the mental health needs of young people who have complicated mental health needs.
Corrections staff need up-to-date training in de-escalation techniques and clear policies about what is out of bounds.
As long as youth are still in the institution, it's the state's duty to make sure that they are safe. If Long Creek can't do that, then it shouldn't stay open one more day.